Woman on Top (2000) / Comedy-Romance

MPAA Rated: R for some strong sexuality and language
Running time: 92

Cast: Penelope Cruz, Murilo Benicio, Harrold Perrineau Jr., Mark Feuerstein
Director: Fina Torres
Screenplay: Peter Filardi

Review published March 1, 2002

Sometimes there are films that fail because the director doesn't seem to try.  Sometimes there are films that fail because the director tried too much.  Woman on Top falls into the rare category where the director fails because of both.  The director in question here is Fina Torres (Celestial Clockwork, Oliana), who definitely shows that she has some flair for aesthetics, but if she spent more time in building believable characters and less in creating sensational color schemes and romanticized whimsy, she probably would have come closer to achieving the magic carpet ride of a romantic comedy she set out to make.

Penelope Cruz (All About My Mother, Abre Los Ojos) has the starring role of Isabella, A Brazilian chef who must always be in control or she'll become nauseous.  If she's in a car, she's the one who must drive.  If she dances, she must be the one who leads.  And during the act of lovemaking, she must always be the one on top.  This doesn't please her husband, Toninho (The Man of the Year, Possible Loves), who explores sexual activities with other women because he feels he has been denied the right to be a man.  No longer feeling tied down to him, she heads to San Francisco to pursue her dreams of becoming a top chef, but hubby is in hot pursuit and won't leave until he has her back.  When she lands a local television cooking show, her passionate foods and sex appeal make her the talk of the town, and with the chance to take things nationally, it's going to be hard for Toninho to lure her back again.

The overambitious direction isn't the only downside at fault for the reason Woman on Top never rises to the level of great entertainment.  The characters aren't well written, relying on stereotypes and shallow contrivances to try to inject some humor in the absence of witty dialogue and genuinely amusing situations.  Despite the fact that the film centers around cooking and television, little research must have been done for either aspect, as neither the dishes being cooked nor the television show about them are done with any authority.  For example, a local cooking show probably would not be shown in widescreen.  A widescreen TV, not so popular yet in the United States, probably would not be the type to be in a San Francisco bar.  A TV in a bar full of men probably would not be tuned into a channel showing a cooking show.  A cooking show is unlikely to be considered riveting by all the men in that bar, regardless of how sexy they may find the host.  Would such a show be the talk of San Francisco?  No way.  I'm not even going to talk about the disbelief that a show would achieve national exposure here, or the fact that the hosts of the show would have no rehearsal time before such a venture begins.

Woman on Top wants very much to be a magical experience.  It is meant to whisk you away with its charm and good cheer, stopping at nothing in its attempts to ultimately make you smile, sing and dance as you leave the theatre.  The moods of the characters effect objects around them, from a kiss causing a thunderstorm, to a tear making a flower bloom.  During much of the running time, there's a wealth of Brazilian crooning and fantastic dancing, and the color schemes are so rich you literally see the entire spectrum in almost every shot.  In so doing, the film ends up feeling more like a weird dream than a movie, and while it's nice to see pretty colors and listen to beautiful music, there's also a story that goes largely neglected, and even when it's not, isn't very interesting in the slightest.

Woman on Top is a misfire that may please those who adore exotic cinematography and sumptuous aesthetics alone, even if the story is basically just a means to show more.  It's the kind of movie-making that would better be served in a musical than in a romantic comedy, and the film never finds the right footing to deliver the feelings of love and happiness that it wants to.  A visual feast may have been what you ordered on the menu, but what you're getting is nothing but sugary sweet courses of desserts instead.

Qwipster's rating:

2002 Vince Leo